Posts Tagged 'bouncing'

When Life Gives You . . . Melon Heads?

I know I’m not supposed to think this, let alone write it on a public blog, but, as Michael Kors likes to say, “Let’s be honest.” Barnum is not as smart as Gadget.

(Don’t hang me out to dry! Read to the end, please!)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when Barnum gets older, he’ll surprise me. Maybe it’s because of all the training mistakes I’ve made. Regardless, Gadget was 12 months’ old when I adopted him, and Barnum is now eight months, and the distinctions become more and more stark with each passing week. These two dogs really couldn’t be more different.

There are many kinds of intelligence, so I’ll get specific.  I’m talking about doggy “school smarts”: trying to figure out what the trainer/handler wants from you, having the confidence to try out behaviors (and make mistakes), a gusto for training (assisted by a gusto for food), and a general ability to problem solve in everyday life. In all but the first category, Gadget leaves Barnum in the dust. (Barnum, however, is so anxious to give me what I’m looking for in training situations that he actually can easily become anxious and frustrated; he wants desperately to succeed, and is vociferous if he feels confused. He also is incredibly sensitive to unintentional cues, which means he’s super tuned in to me and body language. This makes some aspects of training much easier, and a lot of it much harder. All of which is making me into a better trainer — goddamnit!)

Barnum doesn’t intuitively grasp how to do what I used to think were basic doggy skills — until my first Bouvier des Flandres, Jersey, showed an astonishing lack of them. I attributed that to her not having had a very enriching first half of her life, but now I wonder if it had more to do with nature than nurture. For example, I’ve had to teach Barnum how to nudge open a door with his nose if he wants to get to the other side and how to use his paws to get at a treat inside his crate or behind an easily movable object. He hasn’t yet figured out that just by his sheer mass, he can move the (very lightweight, and thanks to his frequent full-body blows, very flimsy) screen door as he brushes against it. Instead, he waits for me to hold it open for him. If it’s partially closed, or swinging shut, he’s afraid of it hitting him. On the other paw, now that he’s learned he can nudge open other doors that are partially closed, he tries to open totally shut, latched doors (by pawing at them). And he doesn’t give up when the door doesn’t budge. Let’s be honest: he hasn’t yet connected all the dots.

Contrast this with Gadget, who, on our “gotcha day” drive home, pulled my sleeping bag out of the cardboard box in the back of my van, pawed and nosed it into the perfect nest, then curled up in it for a nap. That one act (rather, that series of complex behaviors to reach a goal he’d conceptualized from the outset), convinced me that Gadget was gifted, a natural-born problem-solver. (It’s also another example discrediting the assertion that dogs don’t think abstractly.)

I expected Barnum to become that kind of thinker. I figured if I started off with a promising puppy and did lots of clicker training from the beginning, lots of mental enrichment, I’d have a prodigy — an even more inventive dog than Gadget. But, as so many other parents have learned, babies — regardless of species — come with their own personalities.

Gadget learned cues and behaviors four or five times faster than Barnum does. In one of our first training sessions, he learned how to shut a door — in three-minutes. I had to stop teaching Barnum to shut a door because the sound and movement of the door closing frightened him (even though in general he is actually much less fearful than Gadget was). I train from one to four hours per day with Barnum, in several sessions, with breaks. We probably average about two hours a day total. I’m putting in far more work and getting much slower results than I expected, and certainly less than I got with Gadget. On the other paw, I’m also trying to build a much stronger foundation and not cut corners, like I did too often with Gadget. I’m holding on to hope that all this training now will pay off in more solid, reliable, and eager work in the future. (Please, please, please, Training Levels, let me live up to my expectations!)

Maybe it’s not so much a matter of intelligence. Maybe it’s youth and other interests. Specifically, Barnum has the distraction threshold of a paper bag because everything (except me and food) is so unbelievably compelling. He is so distractible that I can’t get him to move out of my way on the ramp once he’s crossed the threshold of the door, because he is arrested by looking at the gravel — every single time. We go out the door multiple times a day, every day, but the gravel never loses its fascinating appeal.

Gadget had his passions, and beyond them, he didn’t bother himself. Gadget loved to run and run and run, to train and learn, to eat, to chase (squirrels, cats, big game like bears and deer, and at the end of his life, pick-up trucks), to play with other dogs (if it involved running and chasing) and that was mostly it. The fact that one of his biggest passions was training (in part because he was so food driven) tends to overshadow the others. He loved me and the few other people in his family pack, in that quiet, aloof, dignified way Bouviers have, and he was protective of our home. He had no use for other people, which is also very Bouvy. He didn’t have much interest in play. He’d retrieve a ball a few times to humor me, and in return, I’d dole out some treats. (Yes, I was bribing him to play with me. It was totally not clicker training. I had to show the treats before he’d go for the ball.) He made it clear that he’d much rather be problem-solving — how to open a different kind of door or retrieve a new object or sniff out a stuffed Kong I’d hidden in a diabolically difficult place. He loved shaping, the ultimate form of puzzle-solving for a dog communicating with their handler via clicker. He loved to think, and he loved to earn his food.

And now here’s Barnum: The only dog I’ve ever had who leaves food in his dish. He doesn’t like peanut butter. (What dog doesn’t like peanut butter??) He’s not so into Kongs unless they’re packed solid with raw meat or cottage cheese, and even then, he often leaves them after a few licks. His attitude toward food can be summed up in one word: “Meh.” Of course, a dog’s gotta eat, and yes, if he’s starving or there’s nothing to distract him (and I mean nothing — no sounds, movements, smells at all), then it’s worth working for food.

Nonetheless, thanks to the magic of clicker training, he is much more interested in treats than he used to be. The power of earning the food, of training me to feed him, lends a higher value to all earned food. But he still only works for good treats. He spits out kibble if he knows I have something better. He even lets his favorite food (cheese) fall out of his mouth if his focus is elsewhere. I could hold a steak in front of him, and he’d duck around it to continue stalking a grasshopper (which, if he caught it, he would eat). I’m absolutely not exaggerating. He really would ignore the steak. He also often prefers to eat sticks and rocks to meat or other delectables.

More differences: He’s the first dog I’ve had who is happy to entertain himself, who actually likes being in the yard finding his own amusements, and doesn’t need to follow me around wherever I go (though he does keep an eye on me). It goes without saying that he loves to dig, and to destroy plants and shrubs by digging them up. So now we have a massive, ugly fence around our garden. Digging is new to me, too.

We named Barnum after the circus because he early showed his acrobatic tendencies. (I still need to post the story of how he got his name. Sorry, readers!) But it’s become more apt due to his clownishness, as well. For instance, he is entranced by watching his reflection in the glass doors. He doesn’t just stand there looking. He jumps up and down on his hind legs, catching serious air, watching himself bounce. He barks at himself. He gets a ball and holds it in his mouth as he jumps up and down. He runs back and forth between the doors, watching himself speed by. Barnum knows he is looking at himself, not at another dog. For one thing, he often watches me or makes eye contact with me in the reflection, using it as a mirror.

“What’s up Mom? Watch me!” (Grabs ball, bounces up and down, drops ball, barks, grabs ball and runs, skids, returns to original glass door, bounces more — all the while making eye contact with me through the glass.)

Here’s a short video of Barnum jumping and barking in front of the doors. Please note that usually he does less barking and much more — and higher! — bouncing. But it was late, and he was tired. I’d also recently started teaching him to bark on cue, so he was feeling quite barky. (We hadn’t established the cue yet, just the behavior.) I didn’t caption the video, because there’s no talking. Read the text description here. Access note: I sometimes tilted the camera sideways, so part of the video’s sideways, which might be symptom-inducing for some. (This includes me. I’ll know not to do that in the future.)

In fact, the first time I put a pack on Barnum to get him used to gear, he showed a Tim Gunn-esque sensibility. Once he felt comfortable in the pack (mostly, he still hates gear), he trotted over to the glass and checked himself out! He actually turned his head this way and that to get more angles. “Oh yeah, I’m a dude.”

Unless it’s hot (another difference — Barnum detests the heat, loves the snow and cold), he wants to be playing all the time. His signature move is to roll onto his back, all feet in the air, and swing his head to look at the nearest person, practically shouting, “Rub my belly! Lavish me with affection!”

Barnum Rolling in the Grass (7 months)

Barnum, at seven months, very much the playful puppy.

He even sleeps in “dead bug position” — a very relaxed, happy guy.

In fact, I think he’s actually a more well-rounded dog than Gadget was. He knows more different styles of play than Gadget did and plays better with a wider range of dogs. He has broader interests: he doesn’t limit himself to only squirrels or prey that’s turkey size or bigger, like Gadget did. Barnum will stalk and chase anything that moves, literally: bugs, song birds, laser dots, balls, toys, leaves blowing in the wind. (Oh, how he loves the wind.)

Jersey hated the van, and Gadget barely tolerated it. Barnum loves to go for rides, sniffing the air out the window and looking over the dashboard to take in the world going by. When we arrive anywhere, he is excited! Who knows what smells and sights and sounds await? Thrilling! Gadget and Jersey had to counterconditioned to numerous phobias. I’ve yet to expose Barnum to a strange noise he’s afraid of; chainsaws, airplanes, amplified live music are all just fine. The usual bugaboos for many dogs — skateboards, bicycles, grocery carts — don’t freak him out, either.

The biggest difference is that Gadget was cerebral, while Barnum is a love. A sweet, gooey, tender boy.

The telltale (pun!) sign is — no surprise — Barnum’s tail. Unless he’s concentrating hard on something (such as a moth), that tail can start wagging at any moment. I’ve never seen a Bouvier tail that wagged so much, even in videos of Bouvs excitedly working Schutzhund or herding. It wags fast. If I praise him, he curls his body with pleasure, dropping his ears and head, and wagging very fast. He will come over to me, and his little stubby tail is wagging so hard that his whole rear half is swaying to keep up. He’ll throw his head against me and press into me, and while I pet him, he wags ferociously. He shows such pure joy at receiving any kindness — praise, petting, chattering. Sometimes, he prefers praise to food, which is hard for training, but very endearing.

He is a believer in kisses. Lots and lots of kisses. On my lips, on my ears, on my nose. Anyone who gets on the floor in this house is in danger of getting French kissed or their ears cleaned or both.

Barnum at 5 months kissing Sharon on bed

He doesn’t reserve his love for family, either. It’s true that as he ages, he is getting more of the Bouvier aloofness with non-family, but he still rushes to greet anyone he sees (just lately, with a nose in their crotch) — whether they want to have anything to do with him or not. When big, strange men come into our house, he doesn’t even bark! He waggles over for some petting.

In other words, when he’s not aggravating the crap out of me by chewing everything he can find or staring at (seemingly) nothing when I want his attention, he’s enormous fun. In general what he lacks in focus, he makes up for in enthusiasm. However, when he’s playing, he is all focus and all enthusiasm. He thinks tug is the most marvelous game in the world, and fetch and balls and stuffed squeaky toys are great, too. Oh my goodness, yes — especially plush squeaky toys. He loves to tear them to pieces to extract and chew on the squeaker. While Jersey’s and Gadget’s toys lasted their whole lives, Barnum has already destroyed almost all of their toys as well as his own. I recently bought a bunch of stuffed animals at a garage sale for 25 cents each, just so I could let him dismember something for cheap.

Most of all, he’s a wonderful playmate, which I desperately need. I have few human friends these days. Indeed, because he requires a lot of heavy-duty play, Barnum is my best form of physical and occupational therapy: throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging. His favorite game is for me to hold up a toy and tell him “Get it!” so he can leap into the air and grab it, then we tussle over it. I ask him to release it, he does, I throw it, he brings it back, and we tug some more. It’s a serious workout. (Thank god for pain killers.) It’s also hilarious, joyful, and life-affirming. He makes me laugh more than any other dog I’ve ever had.

I don’t know if Barnum is the perfect service-dog candidate. Only time will tell. Lots and lots of time and effort; lots and lots of working and training. We are so far behind where I thought we’d be at this stage, I just try to focus on the little victories; otherwise despair can creep in. When I see the big picture of how far we still have to go, it’s a bit nauseating.

Yet, when Barnum wiggles up to me, cuddly and tail-wagging, a toy in his mouth he wants me to tug, and then just hearing my voice, he wags his tail faster, I rub his ears and my frustration disappears. He is clearly the perfect candidate for one job: mending a broken heart. Thank god he’s already on the job.

I miss you, Gadget.

Thank you, Barnum.



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